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A two-front war: Fighting coronavirus and hate


April 16, 2020

President Donald Trump has rightly described the national effort to defeat the coronavirus epidemic as a war. Many have already died, and many more will die in this war, but we may be confident that we will ultimately prevail.

Unfortunately, as we battle the invisible enemy, Asian Americans across the country have been subjected to a wave of hate crimes, bigotry, and physical and verbal aggression by not a few of our fellow citizens. Asian Americans have been physically assaulted, spat upon, cursed in public and treated as if they were somehow responsible for the epidemic that they, like all Americans are vigorously fighting. Some of these hostile acts have happened right here in Montana towns.

It would be comforting to condemn such behavior as un-American, but sadly it is not. Our history demonstrates the uncomfortable truth that Asian Americans have often been scapegoated at times of national crisis. The incarceration in so-called internment camps during World War II of some 120,000 persons of Japanese ancestry — most of them American citizens — is only the most flagrant example. Again, such internment could be found right here in Montana, as Fort Missoula was used as an Alien Detention Center to hold more than 1,000 Japanese men. None of these individuals were ever charged, yet all were held for the duration of the war.

In the 19th century, there were many incidents of lynchings and violence against Chinese, particularly in the West. Americans of Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Filipino, Vietnamese, other Asian and Pacific Island ancestry have often been the targets of bigotry and violence. African Americans, of course, have been and remain the primary victims of our home-grown, American-as-apple-pie racism.

In an earlier war, in the frigid winter of December 1776, at the low point in our country’s war of independence, Thomas Paine, an American patriot, wrote these words: “These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of his country, he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman.”

These stirring words speak truth to our times as they did to his. Now everyone in our beloved country is going through a stress test, measuring our commitment to our fellow Americans as well as to the strangers in our midst, measuring our commitment to our professed values, measuring our compassion. In this time when we are told to stay physically apart, it is essential that we all come together by embracing the spirit of our common humanity. At this time that tests the spirit of each and every one of us, let us not fail the test.

If we succumb to fear and panic, if we speak hate and act hatefully, if we fail to condemn the minority among us who do speak hate and act hatefully we will have failed. If we turn against our fellow Americans, if we turn against the strangers in our midst, we betray the foundational values of our country, we betray the common teachings of our many religious faiths and the parallel secular values that are our heritage. We will have defeated the coronavirus epidemic but surrendered to hatred that is no less the enemy that we must confront and defeat together if we are to survive as “one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”


Steven I. Levine is Senior Fellow at the Maureen and Mike Mansfield Center at the University of Montana. Join the Mansfield Center for a Zoom Dialogue, Addressing Racism in a Time of Pandemic, Friday, April 24 at noon. See http://www.umt.edu/mansfield for log-in information.


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